SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — Smithfield Foods is asking a federal court in South Dakota to block federal safety officials from seeing information about its employees caught up in the COVID-19 outbreak at the company's pork plant in Sioux Falls.
In its filing with U.S. District Court in South Dakota on Wednesday, Smithfield Packaged Meat Corp. is asking for the court to quash a late-June subpoena from OSHA to the South Dakota Department of Health.
The federal workplace safety agency is asking the state department for employee illness reports, COVID-19 test results, interviews with plant employees and managers, correspondence between the state and Smithfield, data and imagery from the plant and any recommendations state officials made to the company.
"Smithfield's employees have legitimate privacy interests in this information, and Smithfield and DOH are legally obligated to protect it," the company stated in its filing.
Facing pressure from state and local leaders, Smithfield shuttered its plant in Sioux Falls for several weeks in April and May after a COVID-19 outbreak among its workforce there eventually linked to hundreds of cases of the virus among employees and their family members. Two plant employees died due to the virus. The company re-opened the plant after a site visit and recommendations issued by a team from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration launched an investigation into conditions at the plant in late April, after workers complained of unsafe conditions and said the company didn't do enough to keep the virus from spreading among the close-quarter working conditions at the plant, which employs about 3,500 people.
The agency also subpoenaed Smithfield for information related to its investigation, and the company claims it has fully cooperated with DOH, but it draws the line at the federal agency seeking additional data from the state Department of Health unless Smithfield can review it first and potentially limit what OSHA receives.
In a statement to Forum News Service, a Smithfield Foods executive emphasized the company's extensive cooperation with the OSHA investigation, and said Smithfield wanted to review the DOH data before it went to OSHA to ensure privacy for its employees and their medical information, as well as "confidential business information."
"Our employees in Sioux Falls have already experienced discrimination in the community amid the pandemic, and we take our responsibility to protect their private health information seriously," said Keira Lombardo, executive vice president of corporate affairs and compliance at Smithfield.
From Smithfield's filings, it appears the state health agency would have a unique and broad window into the plant and the outbreak itself. The company said it is cooperating with the state Department of Health and the CDC on an epidemiological study of the outbreak at the plant, aiming to gather more knowledge about a virus about which there is still little information.
The mission of OSHA, part of the Department of Labor, is quite a bit different. The agency focuses on working conditions at the plant and its employees' health and safety.
"We believe the information sought from the state is both relevant and necessary to OSHA’s ongoing, administrative inspection of the Smithfield Sioux Falls plant," wrote Jennifer Casey, a Labor Department attorney, in an email to Smithfields lawyers on June 30.
The Labor Department and the South Dakota Department of Health didn't respond to a request for comment by deadline.
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